The Sage of Baltimore

Reading the prose of H. L. Mencken is one of the great joys that literacy bestows on the sentient

Henry Louis Mencken was the wonder boy of American journalism. Born in Baltimore in 1880, he found employment as a reporter at its raffish Herald in 1899, became city editor when he was twenty-three, and two years later was made editor in chief. When the Herald soon thereafter collapsed, he leaped nimbly to The Sun and remained there for most of the rest of his life, principally as its star columnist but in numerous advisory and managerial roles as well. Meantime, he edited two hugely influential national magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, for which he wrote criticism that changed the American literary map, and, as Terry Teachout puts it,

In his spare time he produced The American Language, the pioneering study of the divergence of British and American English, which he saw through four editions and two supplementary volumes. He also launched three pulp magazines, wrote a bestselling autobiographical trilogy, edited a definitive anthology of his own writing, compiled a fat dictionary of quotations, translated Nietzsche's Antichrist, served as an unpaid literary consultant to Alfred Knopf, and dictated, by conservative estimate, a hundred thousand letters. Nor was his influence restricted to purely literary matters. As a working reporter and newspaper columnist, he covered everything from the Scopes evolution trial to the 1948 presidential conventions; as a popular philosopher, he produced a still-readable trilogy of "treatises" on democracy, comparative religion, and the history of ethics; as a social critic, he led the charge against the sterile pseudopuritanism of Prohibition-era American culture, an undertaking that his enemies on the left were quick to praise.

If the sin of self-quotation can be pardoned, this is how I described the young Mencken in my introduction to his posthumously published journalistic memoir, My Life as Author and Editor: "He was a force of nature, brushing aside all objects animal and mineral in his headlong rush to the éclat that surely awaited him. He seized each day, shook it to within an inch of its life, then gaily went on to the next." By the time he was in his early forties, he had become what Walter Lippmann called "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." The American Mercury, which he and George Jean Nathan founded in 1924, had a relatively small circulation—it topped out in 1928 at about 84,000 copies—but a large readership, to the point that it seemed, Teachout writes, as if "everyone in the country was either reading the Mercury or complaining about it."

This was almost entirely owing to Mencken. He shaped the magazine's robust, irreverent, contentious character, and his own contributions to it were what readers most avidly sought. No matter where his writing appeared, it was quoted widely, his pungently outspoken opinions debated hotly. Nobody else could make so many people so angry, or make so many others laugh so hard. When, in the second volume of his Prejudices, he ridiculed the South as "The Sahara of the Bozart," a place "almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert," the region rose in righteous outrage; Mencken couldn't have visited Dixie without an armed escort—or an army. He was trying single-handedly to drag American culture out of Puritanism and into the twentieth century, to act as fugleman (one of his favorite words) on this side of the Atlantic for a literary and artistic renaissance comparable to the one then taking place on the other side. He made The American Mercury the chief instrument of this ambitious and unprecedented undertaking. To an astonishing degree he succeeded, and along the way he became, Edmund Wilson wrote, "without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist." Teachout calls this "understatement," and I agree. Mencken was the greatest of all American journalists, and he remains that. Indeed, he is the only one who deserves to be called great.

This, as Mencken doubtless would have been the first to point out, has the sound of damnation with faint praise. The newsroom is not a place toward which greatness naturally gravitates. Journalism trades in the ephemeral. Those who practice it tend to imagine that the ephemeral has consequence and that, accordingly, so do they. Mencken knew this to be malarkey, and he said as much in his splendidly acerbic essay "Journalism in America." People who imagine this is not the case are counseled to examine the journalism shelves of used-book stores, lined as they are with collection after collection of columns, reviews, and news reports that were stillborn at publication.

Mencken, an obsessive list maker, scorekeeper, and bottom-line accountant, claimed to have written ten million words. Plenty of these were every bit as evanescent as the millions written by Richard Harding Davis, Anne O'Hare McCormick, Arthur Krock, Dorothy Thompson, Grantland Rice, and other journalistic bigfeet of Mencken's day. But he was a gifted practitioner of what Teachout calls "meticulous serial revision," in the course of which pieces originally written for The Sun were refined and improved for The Smart Set or The American Mercury and then went through the whole process once again, this time rising from mere journalism, albeit of an uncommonly high level, into essays of indisputable staying power that found their way into Mencken's many books. The subjects of some of those essays may now be of little interest (writers whose reputations have flowed and ebbed, ancient political conventions as stale as their smoke-clogged rooms, controversies long since resolved or forgotten), but the magnificent prose with which Mencken addressed them has lost none of its freshness, its sparkle, its comedy. Reading that prose is one of the great joys that literacy bestows on the sentient.

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